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New report sheds light on state of Norfolk churches 

A new research report by Christian statistics expert, Dr Peter Brierley, has shed new light on the state and numbers of rural churches across East Anglia.

Of the 40,300 churches in England in 2015, 6.8% of them were in the region of East Anglia (the counties of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk), but only 4.2% of the country’s churchgoers were in this region. 
The reason for this difference is that East Anglia has a large number of rural churches, which are attended by fewer people than churches located in urban or suburban areas.  The relevant proportions are shown in the Table, the figures being taken from the 2005 Church Census:

Location of churches in East Anglia

Area Urban % Suburban % Rural % Base (=100%)
Cambridgeshire 23 25 52 675
Norfolk 11 21 68 1,064
Suffolk 8 25 67 874
Regional Total 13 24 63 2,613
England 19 40 41 37,501

East Anglia has the highest proportion of rural churches of all the 10 regions in England, the  nearest being the South West where 56% of churches are in rural areas.  There are three counties which have more rural churches pro-rata than Norfolk or Suffolk – Lincolnshire (72%), Cornwall (71%) and North Yorkshire (70%).
Rural churches have the disadvantage of smaller congregations – an average of 39 across England in 2005 against an overall average of 84 people.  In East Anglia the average rural congregation was only 19 people, half the national average.  Rural congregations are often made up of a majority of elderly people, as younger people will frequently travel (by car) to a church where others of their age and marital status may be found.  Ageing members are more likely to die, so numbers decrease.  Energy is often less, and lay leadership is tough.  Their minister may be shared across several congregations. 
PeterBrierley420It is of course very easy to paint a negative picture, but there are rural churches which have changed.  Sometimes this is because of creative leadership (for example, one Essex vicar started an extra morning non-communion service under the theme “Give God an hour a week” with fewer hymns and no prayer book).  In other churches increase may come through a family or families newly moving into a village, determined to become part of village community life.  Ryedale in North Yorkshire is a District where numbers of new families actually caused the numbers attending the churches there to increase between 2005 and 2012.
Three-fifths, 62%, of the churches in Norfolk were Anglican in 2015, 53% of churches in Suffolk, and 42% of the churches in Cambridgeshire.  Only Herefordshire has a higher percentage of Anglican churches (67%), although Somerset and Worcestershire both have 60%.  The Church of England Dioceses of Norwich, St Edmundsbury and Ipswich (St Eds), and Ely are not totally coterminous with the civil boundaries of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire but are fairly close.  In their latest Statistics for Mission, the C of E show that Norwich and St Eds had the smallest Christian population per C of E church in 2014, with Hereford the smallest general population per church.
While ideally the parish system would allow at least one minister for each parish, in practice Dioceses have combined several parishes in an area into a Benefice, often led by a smaller number of ministers than one-per-parish.  The overall average across England is that there are 2.1 churches per benefice, but the proportion in Norwich is 3.4 and St Eds 3.7, although the highest proportions are in Hereford and Salisbury (3.9 each) and Gloucester at 3.6.  Ely, by comparison is 1.9.  This simply means that East Anglia has fewer Anglican ministers than elsewhere.
Do other denominations compensate for this lack?  Unfortunately, not.  The general group of “Smaller Denominations” (of which the Salvation Army is the largest), which form 11% of the churches in England, comprise 8% of Norfolk churches, although 11% of Suffolk churches (and 16% in Cambridgeshire).  Pentecostal churches are 10% of England’s churches, but just 2% in Norfolk, 3% in Suffolk and 4% in Cambridgeshire. 
Independent churches are 7% overall in England and are 7% of Norfolk’s churches, 9% of Suffolk’s and 6% in Cambridgeshire.  New Churches are 6% of the country’s total but just 4% in Norfolk and 2% in Suffolk but 8% in Cambridgeshire.  So, in broad terms, the energy in starting new church plants is, on the whole, lacking in Norfolk and Suffolk, making church life in general a question of survival rather than growth, though, of course, there are exceptions. 
Farming, the main occupation of rural areas, is a seven-day occupation each week, making it difficult for farming families to attend church activities any day of the week.  Employed rural dwellers often commute to cities or even London to go to church.
There is also the challenge of churchmanship.  40% of English churches are Evangelical, but only 32% of Norfolk’s churches, 38% of Suffolk’s and 36% in Cambridgeshire.  As Evangelical churches usually have larger congregations than others, 39% of Norfolk’s churchgoers are Evangelical, as are 47% of Suffolk’s and 50% of those in Cambridgeshire.  A quarter of Norfolk’s churches are Broad/Liberal (the same as the national average), 29% of Suffolk’s and 27% of those in Cambridgeshire. The Catholic proportion in all three counties is the same or below the national average of 20%.  A fifth, 22%, of Norfolk’s churches describe themselves as Low Church, 9% of those in Suffolk and 11% of those in Cambridgeshire, against an overall 11% for England.
What then can the churches in Norfolk and Suffolk do?  A number of events have been started by retired ministers and others, which cater for people beyond the formal church groups, such as the Men’s Breakfasts held in King’s Lynn.  New Wine hosted a “Worship School” in Norwich in 2015.  Norwich and Norfolk has a very vigorous church news email system (Network Norfolk) sending out details every week. The University of East Anglia has a very active Christian Union.  There is a Christian Conference Centre (Belsey Bridge) on the Norfolk /Suffolk border attracting thousands of guests every year.
Others merge meetings between the different denominations.  Some years ago when there were insufficient young people in one church in Selby, North Yorkshire, six churches combined their youth to form one larger group, meeting each week in one of these six churches.  It worked and the “gang” grew.
The Westminster Theological Centre has an active hub based in a Mid Norfolk church under Freddy Hedley.  It would be wrong to suggest there is limited witness in East Anglia.  There is much activity, but not all of this sees people joining the more traditional churches.

Sources: UK Church Statistics, 2010-2020, ADBC Publishers; Religious Trends Nos 2 and 6, 2000 and 2006, Christian Research; Statistics for Mission 2014, Research and Statistics Dept., Archbishops’ Council.
This article will also appear in the August issue of FutureFirst. The views are those of the author and not of Network Norfolk. You can contact Peter at peter@brierleyres.com
Pictured top is Peter Brierley on a recent visit to Norwich and All Saints Hethel (picture courtesy of Simon Knott).

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